The concept of self-love can be intimidating for clinicians and clients alike in its broadness and ubiquity. What does it truly mean? How do we help our clients develop self-love, and once they develop it, how do we support them in maintaining this love in the same way they nurture the love in other important relationships in their lives?
Self-love is a broad term that encompasses a way of being, thinking, and acting toward yourself. It includes internal acceptance of unpalatable thoughts and emotions as well as consistent and enduring actions that show warmth and unconditional regard for yourself.
The important elements we must consider when supporting clients in developing self-love are the conditions and contexts in which self-love is to be developed. For example, it’s highly beneficial to explore how clients were shown love, what they were taught about love, and how their current environment may impact the development of love. Similarly, it is essential that we consider each specific client and their exclusive journey—their unique context, societal challenges, and experiences they face on a day-to-day basis.
Conditional Self-Love Our female clients may find self-love to be especially daunting. Consider the wide and vast number of “shoulds” women experience in their life from childhood to adulthood. Young girls may hear, “You should be sweet and kind to others,” “Good girls should be quiet and respectful towards others,” or even, “You should work harder than the boys to prove yourself.” These shoulds that we hear from our parents, caregivers, teachers, and all the other forms of messaging we are exposed to in childhood creates adult women who carry around beliefs such as, “I should always be sweet and kind to others, no matter what I’m feeling inside,” “I should work harder. I need to set a good example for other women,” or even, “There must be something wrong with me because I can’t make myself be small and quiet.”
This sets women up for a conditional sort of self-love in which they are only able to love themselves once they reach all the impossibly high and ultimately unattainable “shoulds” that they have inherited from their childhood, families, and the systems they inhabit. Additionally, these conditions are further reinforced by our environments. What parent or teacher doesn’t appreciate the sweet, respectful, and hardworking girl?
While everyone experiences pressures and expectations based on our identifying characteristics, we cannot and must not dismiss the reality that women are exposed to an inordinately high level of messaging about the way they should act, behave, think, and comport themselves. Additionally, we currently exist in a system in which women's rights, bodily autonomy, and worth are in question—and even in jeopardy—leading to further beliefs and distortions in what they must do in order to be worthy of love.
How to Take the Shoulds out of Self-Love As clinicians, we have the unique privilege and responsibility to support our female clients in detangling and deepening insight into the conditions and barriers they may be experiencing in developing healthy self-love.
One way of doing this is helping our clients explicitly identify and name the “shoulds” or conditions they have created around self-love. Some of these may rise quickly to the surface (e.g., I should be put together and professional always), while others may take more digging through directive questioning such as, “When did you feel most loved by your parents? Who did you have to be and/or what traits did you have to show in order to receive this love?” We support women by helping uncover the conditions they have consciously or subconsciously adopted for self-love and empowering them with the opportunity to choose what self-love means to them.